As I walked onto the stunning land that is Pu'uhonua o Hōnaunau, one of the first things to catch my eye was the traditional grass thatched hālau (A-frame structure). Pu'uhonua o Hōnaunau is an historical place sometimes referred to as the 'Place of Refuge', and is located on the south coast south of Kona, Big Island. In the bright morning sunlight, the stark white earth sparkled and served as the flooring for the simple open housing. Coconut palms swayed in the breeze and their shadows painted distinct patterns on the ground.
Open on both ends, the hālau were expertly thatched and looked as if they were built to withstand the test of time and the weather patterns of the coast. Supported by a foundation of rocks on each side, huge beams held the building in place. The entire structure looked as though it was ready to set sail - as I stepped inside I felt as though I was on board a sailing vessel. On the ground lay koa double hull canoes, or wa'akaulua. And right next to a canoe sat a Hawaiian man, wearing a traditional malo (loin cloth), weaving twine into a long string. He was making string to use in his cow shell artifacts - beautifully crafted and woven into an intricate design with the twine wound around a rock to secure the shell. It looked like he was making canoes. In fact he was making lures and hooks.
I approached quietly and sat down to watch. He was completely absorbed in his artwork craft. It was mesmerizing to watch him work. He began to tell me how the cowrie shells that were once plentiful are now rare, due to many people collecting them. This topic sparked an interesting conversation between us - I was curious to know how Hawaiian people feel about their islands being influenced by a consumerist culture that is resulting in an overuse of resources.
In a soft and gentle voice, this humble man introduced himself as Charlie and began to share his story.
Charlie said that at the age of five, he remembered his grandparents’ generation telling him about George Washington and the Boston Tea Party but he didn't learn much about Hawaiian history. He did learn of the overthrowing of the Hawaiian monarchy by American sugar planters, and the migration of people to work in the sugar fields. Dissatisfied with what he was learning, he began seek out those who had real 'knowledge' about Hawaiian culture.
He learned about the importance of the canoe. On a practical level – if it wasn't for the canoe, Polynesian people would not have landed in Hawaii. But it appeared there was a deeper spiritual meaning of the canoe. Family is of utmost importance in Hawaiian culture. People are aware of 'mālama' (to care for). Wisdom was passed along through the speaking of stories. Like many indigenous cultures - those who held those original stories are gone. And those who have it now are fast disappearing.
Excited to hear more, I shuffled into a more comfortable position on the crunchy floor ground and wished I was a faster writer to be able to capture every word. Charlie's eyes sparkled as he spoke about his heritage.
Charlie continued to share about his perspective on Hawaiian philosophy as he sat and crafted cowrie shells into little canoes. It seemed I was sitting in a giant canoe, right next to smaller wooden canoes, watching this man make art pieces that resembled miniature canoes. That humble vessel was going to be the theme of our discussion.